February Issue 2011

By | News & Politics | Opinion | Viewpoint | Published 13 years ago

When I told people in Pakistan that I would be moving to Tunisia, the initial reaction from almost everyone was a question: “Where exactly is it?”

I cannot blame them for being ignorant about this until-then-insignificant yet beautiful place. Tunisia is a small country located in North Africa, with a population of just over 10 million — about half of that of Pakistan’s largest city, Karachi. During its entire independent history, Tunisia has hardly made global headlines. The only significant trade and diplomatic relations it has are with other North African countries, or some nearby European and Middle Eastern nations. It is thus hardly surprising that people living thousands of miles away from this tiny Mediterranean country are unaware of anything about it other than recognition of its name. This was all to change.

Just a few months had passed since my arrival in the Tunisian capital of Tunis when revolution erupted in the streets and eventually caused its President to flee. It was a historic moment, not only for the people of Tunisia but also for the Arab world as a whole. It removed, once and for all, the fear from the hearts of the people. In this part of the world, despotic rulers have used this fear to rule over their subjects with an iron fist. President Ben Ali, a man who ruthlessly ruled a country for 23 years, was forced to flee in just 29 days. The revolution was an amazing act of courage by the people of Tunisia — and I witnessed it all.

From the peaceful demonstrations by the Tunisian people and the violent reaction by the police to the looting and destruction caused by mysterious thugs and the self-armed citizens protecting their property, I experienced it all first hand. During the reign of terror unleashed by mysterious gangs after the exit of Ben Ali from Tunisia, my neighbours wondered how I was so calm in these tough times. Little did they know that this was not the first time I had witnessed such scenes. Demonstrations (both peaceful and violent), police crackdowns, lootings and citizens’ self-security are part of the daily lives of Pakistanis: we have been doing for the last 60 years what the Tunisians have done recently. Still, I wondered why after being at it for so long did we Pakistanis fail to achieve the profound change that the people of Tunisia achieved in such a short time?

Throughout its history, the Pakistani nation has been tossed like a volleyball back and forth between two groups of people: the political elite and the military. The political cycle in Pakistan starts with a political party winning a seemingly rigged election and proceeding to mismanage the country. This prompts demonstrations and protests, and finally the army storms in and takes over, imposing martial law. After a variable length of time, the army hands over the golden seat to the political elite and the cycle of misery starts a new loop. The people of Tunisia had to deal with one despot, we have had many. They had one round of demonstrations and a security vacuum, we’ve had countless. Yet still we have failed to bring about a fundamental change in our country on the lines of what happened in Tunisia. Why? Can the domino effect of the Tunisian revolution reach Pakistan as it has reached Egypt? After studying Tunisia, its people and its society, I conclude that it can’t. Although there are countless reasons for this conclusion, one, and perhaps the most important, is education.

A major reason why the Tunisian revolution became a reality was the literacy rate in the North African nation. The vast majority of the Tunisian people, almost 75%, are literate. The literacy rate of the Tunisian youth, as per the 1996 census, was an amazing 96.6%. This meant that almost every young Tunisian was a literate person. This high literacy had a lot to do with the education system in Tunisia. Education, right up to university level, is almost free for Tunisian citizens. A student studying engineering at a university here told me her annual tuition fees were US$60! Most schools, and almost all universities are public. The private university system accounts for just 1% of the university student population. The education system in Tunisia meant that not only was education free for everyone, students belonging to different backgrounds studied side by side in the same institutions. Thus almost everyone was not only educated, informed and intellectual citizens but also, by and large, was able to sympathise with one another irrespective of social backgrounds. This is the reason why I had seen many rich businessmen abhor the Ben Ali regime due to the sufferings it caused lower socio-economic groups even when they had prospered under it. Even after ruling over the Tunisian people for 23 years, and even after using every trick in the trade, Ben Ali failed to fool the Tunisian people because they were educated citizens who were aware of their rights.

The education system in Pakistan, on the other hand is a disaster. The national literacy rate stands at a shameful 58%, while the literacy rate of the youth is just 69%. Although education is free in the primary and fundamental stages, it can hardly be called an “education.” I once met a Pakistani boy studying in the sixth grade in a government school in rural Pakistan who could not write his own name. The school system in Pakistan is divided between cheap/free government schools and moderately/very expensive private schools. Low-income families are forced to send their children to government schools that often lack the most basic facilities, as well as having unqualified teachers.

Private schools also cater to different social classes. There are medium-range schools for the middle class as well as high-end schools for the upper class. Thus this class segregation, which is so evident in Pakistani society, starts right in primary school. Children belonging to each social class go to schools where the other students come from the same economic background, thus growing up to be narrow-minded and self-centred individuals who fail to empathise with people from different backgrounds.

The higher education system is much worse. The concept of free education ends in the primary stages, and when it comes to tertiary education, even government universities charge fees that are beyond the means of a large portion of the population. Poor students who manage to make it to the university level after struggling through the government school system find that most professional degrees are out of their reach. Moreover, a handful of cheap government universities issue degrees that are near worthless in the job market. These students are, thus, forced to do a “simple BA” which lands them a job as a government clerk at most. After 16 years of education, the son of a clerk ends up as a clerk. On the other hand, students from affluent backgrounds have the luxury to choose between a vast array of government and private universities (most go private). Thus the son of a manager at a company does an MBA from an expensive university and ends up as a manager at a company. If it is the child of a high-ranking government officer, well he doesn’t need to worry about the university he chooses: nepotism will land him in the seat of his father anyway. Class segregation that begins in primary schools is further strengthened in the universities right into the professional world.

Although it is pertinent to note that many developed countries of the world have public and private schools and universities running side by side as in Pakistan, the facilities and level of teachers in the public institutions are at par with those of their private counterparts. During my university life in Malaysia, I was surprised to see that Malaysian public universities had much better facilities and more qualified lecturers than those found in private universities there. In Pakistan, not only are the poor forced to send their children to institutions that lack the most basic facilities, the education system itself in those schools is backward. Most private schools in Pakistan that cater to the rich use the British O/A-level system of education, while government schools use the federal and provincial boards, which use techniques and curricula decades behind modern standards. Thus the poor, who are deprived of educational facilities and qualified teachers, spend their school life learning via a backward system, one which teaches them to start an application with the words “I beg to state….”

With illiteracy and class segregation affecting so many Pakistanis, many do not understand their rights as citizens and they fail to become intellectually mature citizens. Different social groups in Pakistan fail to empathize and truly understand what the other has to face.

The revolution in Tunisia became a reality because people from all sections of society participated in it. Because the people understood their rights, and each other, rich and poor were able to understand the social situation of the other. This unifying spirit of the Tunisian people was created in their schools and polished as they progressed through to university. It is likely this lack of a free and fair education system that will unfortunately deprive Pakistan of a revolution along the lines of the one that took place in Tunisia. And it is this exact reason why, in Pakistan, the cycle of social misery will keep taking the same turn again and again.